The journey that is the Major League Soccer season is long. The wait for the next campaign is even longer and more painful when it ends in defeat. Against that backdrop D.C. United is fighting for survival Sunday on the road in game two of its Eastern Conference semifinal series with the New York Red Bulls.
While it is fair to say the Red Bulls were the better team last Sunday in the series opener against United, on the scoreboard, where it matters, the advantage was not by much. For all of the Red Bulls possession and chances, they were still only able to pinch one goal in the 72nd minute when Dax McCarty headed home a free kick.
In an aggregate-goal series where road scores are the tiebreaker, the goal was an important one. Still it was only one goal and it gives United a real chance on Sunday in Harrison, New Jersey. It is a chance with the understanding that United will have to dance on the fault line of being the aggressor while at the same time not allowing the Red Bulls to unleash their lethal attack.
There is belief in the United camp that the mission can be accomplished. All season there were doubters as United held a grip on first place in the Eastern Conference for most of the summer. In some ways United seems to enjoy the underdog role and the team’s fighting spirit is a reflection of its head coach Ben Olsen and his approach as a player.
United’s belief is tempered by harsh reality. In winning the Supporter’s Shield for the league’s best record, the Red Bulls were an impressive 12-3-2 at home. In the regular season United was outscored 5-0 in two meetings at Red Bull Arena.
1. United must score. I know it is stating the obvious, but United is the only team in the MLS Cup playoffs to have allowed more goals than it scored. The trade that brought Alvaro Saborio to United was supposed to electrify the team’s attack. The results have been mixed and Saborio has been even used in a substitute’s role. The skill and commitment is there when looking at United’s attack. Saborio with Fabian Espindola at forward can occupy opposing defenders and Chris Rolfe and Nick De Leon on the flanks can open up the field. It has to happen on Sunday. It is that simple.
2. Injury concern. The play of Chris Pontius over the final month added to the confidence that United’s attack would be brighter in the postseason. Pontius is dealing with a hamstring injury and might not be able to play again on Sunday. Sean Franklin left game one of the series with an ankle injury and that leaves head coach Ben Olsen trying to sort out his backline. Another option at outside back Chris Korb is out for the season with a knee injury and that means United will have to shuffle. Bobby Boswell is back from suspension and he could partner in the middle of the defense with Kofi Opare with Steve Birnbaum being pushed wide. In the regular season Birnbaum started twice on the flank in defense, but it was at left back and not Franklin’s right back position. Luke Mishu and Miguel Aguilar are comfortable on the right side and could factor in Olsen’s thinking.
3. The Red Bulls. It is important to always give credit to the opponent. The Red Bulls are a very good possession and high press team. United’s disrupted that possession early in game one and showed signs of threatening. United will have to be fast and decisive to in its approach to handle the Red Bulls pressure. United also knows too well the peril of dealing with the Red Bulls. In the one result this year with the Red Bulls, United lost what appeared to be a comfortable 2-0 second half lead and had to settle for a 2-2 draw. That can’t happen on Sunday.
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